Are you sick of your huge monthly cable or satellite bill?
We were. We "cut the cord" and there's been no looking back. TV Antennas are not what they used to be. We got our first digital antenna 5 years ago, and the technology continues to get better.
We've written before about our experience with Over the Air "Antenna" TV. It's amazing: legal and free broadcast of High Definition signals. Have you got a modern flat-screen TV in your living room? It's pretty likely you can pick up channels this very minute.
Until now, we've only provided limited discussion about what equipment is actually out there. This spring, Antennas Direct released their DB8e which claims reception of 70+ miles (without an amplifier), so this seemed like a great time to talk about gear. We were given a DB8e to give an unbiased review for our readers.
The DB8e features a design that many Canadians (and other folks, too) will appreciate: the ability to aim separate parts of the antenna independently. This means you can aim the antenna toward many signals at once (i.e. pick up more channels for free). Since Canada is a place where we either live a long ways away from our signal sources or we live in a location with two separate sources, you can see why these features would be a selling point.
How did it do? Let's check it out.
Most stuff I read online about digital antennas is written for people like me. You know, full of jargon and data. Yeah, I'm talking about Geeks. But regular families can benefit from ditching their monthly TV bill and using an antenna - just no one is writing for normal people. This post won't be like that (i.e. Robin will heavily edit my geek-speak into something that makes sense).
My goal is to try and keep it simple and show you what this product can do in real-world conditions. My benchmarks for this review will be how well my current channels are improved and what additional channels I can receive with the DB8e.
First, some disclaimers and disclosure.
- Antenna signal reception can be as varied as the weather. In fact, the weather itself is often the cause of this variation. I tested the DB8e in a week's worth of Canadian spring weather, which saw beautiful warm, sunny clear days and a couple days of wind, rain, snow, hail and general awfulness. I am located about halfway up a hill, with trees and other, distant hills between me and the signals I am trying to receive. In short, I tested it in some real-world, "best-" and "worst-case" scenarios. What I saw should be repeatable by you, but since every house is a little different, your reception will be unique to you.
- Secondly, Antennas Direct, in partnership with their Canadian distributor Save and Replay provided my review model of the DB8e. They have not provided me with my opinion. I have been even-handed and honest in the following review.
- Finally, I am comparing this antenna to an already top-of-the-line system (combing a mini-state we purchased nearly a decade ago with a 5-year-old Channel Master 4228HD and amplifier). All told, my old system cost us over $400. The Antennas Direct DB8e is half that.
|The great big box the DB8e arrives in. 70 mile Range? - Let's find out.|
So here goes:
Frugal Review: Antennas Direct DB8e
Great Assembly/Build Quality.
I was surprised at how much the box weighed and when I opened it, I could see why. The DB8e was clearly a better constructed product than my current Channel Master 4228HD (which, itself has held up well).
My old 4228HD came assembled and has a very lightweight connection for your cable run. Nothing about the DB8e is lightweight. It survived wind tunnel testing at speeds above what constitutes a hurricane. It does take some assembly time, though. The instructions were a clear, one sheet page that I was easily able to follow. Those wanting more could check out the ultra-detailed unboxing from Solid Signal.
|This is how it comes out of the box. You'll need a screwdriver, a wrench and maybe 30 minutes to assemble.|
I timed myself and even with the breaks to take photos, I was done in 30 minutes.
When assembled, each side section moves and can be aimed independently. Once aimed, you tighten a couple nuts on each side and lock them in place. I left mine at hand tighten till I was sure where I wanted it pointing.
|As a Canadian, I was happy to see screws that could be driven with a Robertson screwdriver. Is this actually valuable information? Not really, we just like Robertson screws. Did I mention we're kinda dorky?|
Because of the physical size and weight of the DB8e, I would suggest fitting it to the mounting bracket/mast on the ground. The antenna mounting brackets do provide for a fairly easy attachment to an existing mast, but I still wished I could've attached mine while standing on the ground.
|Assembled and ready for testing.|
I mentioned in our last post that putting up an antenna means working up high; if that isn't in your skill set, find a helper or hire a pro.
Once mounted, I tried the following tests to see how it stacked up to my current arrangement:
- DB8e solo (only a 50 foot run of cable and plug into the TV): cost ~$220
- DB8e through my existing amplifier: cost ~ $300
- DB8e combined with amplifier and Mini-State ~ $500
|The old and the new; my combo system on the left and the DB8e on the right.|
I tested on both Sony and Samsung TVs. (I find my older Sony has a better antenna tuner in it than the Samsung, but I wanted two TV tests for comparisons sake.)
Priced at $199 USD/ $209 CAD.
By allowing you to point in two different directions with one antenna, Antennas Direct is saving you the cost (at least $100) of buying an antenna rotator (or rotor). The DB8e's range (more on this in a moment) also might mean you won't need a signal amplifier (another piece of pricey gear).
So even though it is among the more costly antennas out there, it may end up costing you less in the long run. We've already discussed how much cable costs; even with a high up-front price this antenna likely pays for itself in under 6 months of use.
My Test Results:
- The DB8e, all by itself, performed better than advertised. I was able to receive signals from Toronto (50 miles) and Buffalo (85 miles) as well as a nearby VHF broadcast that was coming in 90 degrees to the side of the direction I was aiming. These signals were not as strong as how my current set-up received them, but I was using equipment that cost $300 less, so not really an "Apples to Apples" comparison.
- Running the DB8e through my amplifier produced even better results. I was able to receive CBS, ABC, NBC, CW and PBS out of Buffalo (some transmitting from nearly 100 miles away) with the strongest signals I have recorded in over 5 years of checking. My Samsung was able to tune ABC and CBS for the first time ever - I added 7 more channels to it in my scan.
- Finally, I paired the DB8e with my Mini-State. It performed better than the 4228HD on all channels. This last arrangement is the only true "apples-to-apples" test; the DB8e replacing my 4228HD. Sometimes the difference was marginal, but with OTA reception, marginal can mean the difference between watchable and unwatchable. For my Samsung TV, it was the difference between being able to tune in several channels and not being able to see them at all.
- Geeky-detail on this: My logic is going to get technical here, so bear with me. HD signals broadcast in the US on the UHF frequency. In Canada, we mostly use UHF, but some are still on VHF. Since the DB8e is designed to target UHF only (and logically, I might add) it did miss a few channels in the Greater Toronto Area still on VHF. Many of these are set to migrate to UHF stations in the next few months, but for now, I wanted the greatest amount of coverage.
|The Lifetime (lifetime!) Warranty card that comes with the BD8e.|
- Strong build & high overall quality. A product that looks like it can handle Canadian winters.
- A good company/website backing the product. As a company, Antennas Direct seems to be actively doing research into new designs. Their website has tonnes of detail and is a haven for anyone seeking parts and know-how.
- Fantastic reception. Some of my channels saw as much as a 20% signal strength increase. If you live very far away (e.g. 110kms/70miles) from a transmitter, this could be your only hope (rural Canada, take note).
- Multi-path aiming, great for places where your signal may be coming from more than one location. Toronto (CN Tower/Buffalo), Vancouver (Vancouver/Seattle) and Montreal (Montreal/Burlington) are all large, Canadian centres where this is likely the case. No need to buy a rotor.
- Free, HD quality signals for most stuff you are paying to watch through cable or satellite (technically, this a pro for all HD antennas, but it really merits repeating).
- That strong build translates to a challenging mount. You'll want a bit of help putting it up. But, once it is up, it will likely take a hurricane to bring it down. (Seriously, watch this video if you don't believe me.)
- UHF only reception - in the US, not an issue. But, in some Canadian markets, you may have trouble tuning some local stations. Most are scheduled to switch over soon but check to make sure one of your favourites isn't still an old VHF signal.
- Aesthetically, any antenna is going to stand out on your roof. Robin expressed concern about the red plastic connectors on the DB8e. As it lay on our kitchen table, she felt they were a bit of an eyesore. (Robin suggested painting them or covering them with dark tape.) Thankfully, once up on the roof, however, the red practically disappears - or at least blends in with the rest of the antenna.
- This is still an antenna, not a weather/tree/signal manipulator. I still had bad days during testing when I lost almost all of my US channel reception. Some are over 100 miles away and it was sleeting, hailing and at times, snowing, so I can forgive the DB8e for that.
Our Frugal Verdict:
A Strong Frugal Choice, especially for rural Canadian markets or urban areas where you want to try and get signals from more than one source (so, almost everyone).
I feel the best bang for the buck is a DB8e and a pre-Amp. This will cost you $300 (still way less than a year worth of cable), but it will give you the best payoff. A DB8e alone is over $200 and the small additional cost of the pre-amp will allow you to truly appreciate all the power it offers. Even with some VHF channel loss, the extra distance and flexibility the DB8e provides will more than make up for the one or two channels that might drop out.
Edit - February 2014 As per request in the comments - my TV Fool results table:
|I typically receive the top 19 channels in the table. I receive 4 "grey" area channels (4.1, 17.1, 7.1, 2.1) which TV Fool describes as "These channels are very weak and will most likely require extreme measures to try and pick them up". |
Antennas Direct provided us with this product to review. All opinions are our own.